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Butterfly Bushes: Types, Care, and Pruning

 

Surely one of the top ten reasons people garden must be to fill an otherwise ho hum space with life. The color bursts of flowers; the exotic fragrances of leaves; the hypnotic effect of arching stems swaying in the wind; the singing of the trees as gentle breezes rattle their leaves; and the intriguing housing complexes, subways, and airports of the thousands of species of miniature life that accompany gardening all contribute to make it the number one hobby in America.  

One of the greatest treasures for providing life in the garden is the Butterfly Bush. Hummingbirds and beneficial insects, as well as butterflies, are seduced by the nectar rich flowers of these bushes. Stunning colors paint lengthy bottle brush like flowers in dazzling hues that complement most every garden color theme. 

Many of the Butterfly Bushes here at Mountain Valley Growers are planted in naturalized settings. These are allowed to grow in their normal rampant manner. While Butterfly Bushes have many virtues, their one main flaw is that the dead flowers are never dropped. Underline NEVER. From a distance, this is not so noticeable. In colder climates, the bush takes care of this by dying back to the ground, but in the warm, 20 degree winters here the plants remain evergreen and ever holding these spent blooms. 

Several Butterfly Bushes have been planted in more formal areas where more effort is made to tidy them up. Early spring is when these bushes that adorn our patios and near gardens are sculpted.  Using  sharp loppers  the weeping side branches are chopped back to a cluster of main stems in the center of the bush. The center stems are left as tall as possible without having the tops droop down. Usually this means  some of the top growth is cut back a bit also. Even beefy side stems are removed if they are arching away from the main cluster of center stems. The result is a columnar plant that looks like a plucked chicken, but within a few weeks the bush is covered with fresh new growth. And, shortly after, it will be covered with fresh as a daisy blue or gold or pink or dark purple or light purple or white or reddish purple or bluish purple flowers that will stun and please, not only the life in flight, but you, too.

 

Zone 5 Butterfly Bushes

 

Close up of Dwarf Blue Butterfly Bush Flower Wand

Even though there are over 100 species of Buddleias (also written Buddleja), most commercially available butterfly bushes  are variations of Buddleia davidii. These bushes are hardy to minus 20 degrees and grow between 6 and 15 feet tall.

 

 

 

Buddleias are vigorous growers that remain evergreen in winters with minimum temperatures of 20 degrees. Where winters are more severe they can be deciduous, merely dropping leaves, or herbaceous, freezing completely back to the ground. Phenomenal growth is achieved the next spring, even if they do freeze all the way to the ground.   Leaving branches on until  spring and mulching over winter are good practices for those in the coldest areas of zone 5.

While flower colors are often referred to as blue, there are no true blue (or red) flowers in the Buddleia genus. Their colors range from very dark purple to pink to pure white. Some hybrids have orange and gold flowers.

Black Night (perhaps he darkest Buddleia davidii) is a very old variety that can easily grow to 15 feet. It has an open structure and slightly shorter flowers than more modern selections .

Twilight is a Mountain Valley Growers’ introduction. It was bred here to be extra drought resistant, to have denser growth, and to have more heat tolerance during blooming. It has a  pretty dark purple flower . It tops out at about 10 feet. It also does great under normal garden conditions as long as it gets proper drainage.

Purple Ice Delight is the most recent Mountain Valley Growers’ introduction. A very drought tolerant 8 foot bush with dense habit, it has a dark purple flower with a hint of pink. A good choice for planting with other pinks.

Royal Red is a smaller shrub that tops out at about 6 feet. The flowers are a bit shorter than some others and the color is more  maroon than red. At about 6 feet, the branches tend to splay out rather than grow upright.  It might look untidy to some but we like the weeping habit and so do the birds.

Harlequin is a sport of Royal Red. It has cream and green variegated leaves and maroon flowers. This plant rarely gets over 4 feet here. It may be marginal in a true zone 5 winter so a deep mulch is recommended. Branches sometimes revert back to all green but these are easily removed.

Dwarf Blue, also known as Nanho Blue, was, at first introduction, thought to be a smaller bush. However, the bush can get up to 12 feet tall. The lilac flowers are smaller but very prolific.

Pink Delight is a tall, stately shrub with long bubblegum pink flowers. It gets about 8 feet tall and grows densely which makes it a good choice for a hedge.

White Profusion has long, pure white flowers and reaches about 8 feet tall. It looks great planted with red flowers like Maraschino Cherry Salvia.

Sungold is a Buddleia hybrid (Buddleia x weyeriana) that is a dense, well-formed shrub that reaches about 8 feet. It is loaded with lots of golden pom-pom like flowers.  It  may need to be mulched in the coldest zone 5 winters.

BiColor is a Buddleia hybrid (Buddleia x weyeriana) that grows a little slower and may be shorter than other B. davidii’s. The flowers are an intriguing mix of pink and gold. It may need to be mulched in the coldest zone  5 winters.

Fountain Butterfly Bush (Buddleia alternifolia) has graceful, drooping branches that are covered in the spring with sprays of lilac flowers that give the whole plant a water fall effect.

These three zone 8 bushes are a bit more unusual and require a warmer winter to survive than the well-known Buddleia davidiis and their crosses. However, they are just as beautiful and attract just as many butterflies. In warmer areas, they can provide blooms at times when other butterfly bushes are not blooming.  Encouraging early and late wildlife to the garden by planting a variety of plants helps to make the  garden work better.

Winter Flowering Lilac (Buddleia asiatica) is our tallest Buddleia. It easily grows to 15 feet and perhaps a bit more. The white flowers are smaller and less showy than the flowers of a Buddleia davidii, but their fragrance is well worth it. Blooming in late winter, the freesia like scent fills the air for at least a month. It has the gift of being spread on the wind, so that just standing 20 feet away the aroma surrounds you.

Himalayan Butterfly Bush (Buddleia crispa) has the distinction of the softest, grayest leaves in the Buddleia genus. Unlike the Buddleia davidiis which usually have dark green leaves with varying degrees of felt underneath, this plant is all felt. It's soft silver gray leaves are inviting to the touch in much the same way Lambs Ears (Stachys lantana) are. While it has been reported to reach heights of 10 feet, here it rarely reaches more than 4 feet. This late bloomer holds its flowers here throughout most winters, but if the temperature plunges, the bush becomes a mushy mass that is better pruned back to the ground. Besides it's highly ornamental foliage there are also many small flower spikes composed of tiny lilac flowers with orange eyes.

Orange Woolly Butterfly Bush

As with most plants we grow, good drainage is important for Butterfly Bushes but rich soil is not necessary. A 2 3/4 inch pot placed in the ground in early spring will grow to 3 or 4 feet in one year, and as much as 8-10 feet the following year. This makes these shrubs perfect for naturalizing vast areas or covering hillsides. Providing quick shade for hot summer spots in the landscape, they also make  beautiful covers for fences, arbors or buildings. Their fast growth also makes them a perfect choice for patio planters.  Small pots can be transplanted into 5 gallons and enjoyed a season or two before they grow too large and need a  much larger pot or a home in the garden.

While Buddleias do require some summer watering, it is not an excessive amount. Once established, as infrequently as once a week or less,  can be sufficient. A great advantage for the valleys of California is that the scorching sun does not adversely affect their growth nor does it burn their leaves. Even more importantly, the broiling sun does not fade the colors of the flowers. And, after all, the flowers are the main attraction. Millions of tiny flowers are formed along a bottle brush like spike. 

The length of the spike varies with the variety. The flowers of the Golden, BiColor, Harlequin and  Dwarf Blue are in the 3-5 inch range. Royal Red, Royal Blue, Twilight, White Profusion, Black Knight and Pink Delight are in the 8-10 inch range and are often 3 inches in diameter. Blooms are strong solid colors that first appear in late spring and continue until frost. When temperatures rise above 90 degrees, the open flowers remain on the plant but new flowers buds are put on hold. This makes spring and fall in very warm areas better for viewing blooms. 

These large shrubs often give gardeners fits about pruning. The important thing to remember is that these are tough plants. There is almost nothing wrong you can do. You can prune anytime. If you prune hard during the growing season the worst that can happen is you will cut off your flowers for a while. But, they grow fast and more flowers quickly replace those that are lost. The normal life cycle of this bush is to go dormant in zones 5 and 6. At this point the canes above ground are dead. They can then be pruned to the ground. This is usually sometime after frost. If you are in a marginal zone 5 area, it is a good idea to apply a three to six inch layer of mulch covering the crown.  In zones 8 and up, the bush will remain evergreen and can be pruned to the ground or in any configuration that suits your garden.

Here is a good site for perfect pruning points and pictures of many perennials.

It is not only the vast amount of color Butterfly Bushes produce that butterflies and humans enjoy but also the heady honey-like aroma.  Each tiny flower has a nectar filled tube which is just right for butterflies and hummingbirds, and ultimately, us.

 

Butterfly Bushes are included in our Wildlife Herb Garden Six Pack and are usually included in our Butterfly Attractor 36 Pack Assortment, a special collection of butterfly nectar and host plants.

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